Homily of Archbishop Dermot Clifford for the GAA 125th Anniversary Commemoration Mass

01 Nov 2009

1 November 2009

Homily of Archbishop Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly and Patron of the GAA for the 125th Anniversary Commemoration Mass in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles, Co Tipperary

(All Saints Feast – Sunday 1 November 2009)

In his recent publication, Micháel’s GAA Odyssey, Micháel Ó Muircheartaight is amused at a headline in The Tipperary Star which read – “Death of hurling immortal”.  Obviously the GAA and the Church have two parallel concepts of immortality!  In later entry in this same book, Micháel describes “immortality” in the GAA use of the term:


Reports estimate that up to 60,000 people lined the streets of Cork for the funeral of hurling legend Christy Ring in March 1979.  The graveside oration was delivered by his former teammate and the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch.  It included the immortal words:

As long as young men will match their hurling skills against each other on Ireland’s green fields, as long as young boys swing their camáns for the sheer thrill of the feel and the tingle in their fingers of the impact of ash on leather, as long as hurling is played, the story of Christy Ring will be told.  And that will be forever’.

This represents the GAA’s concept of immortality.  Incidentally, when Christy Ring left the excitement, much of which he created himself, of great games in Semple Stadium he always came here to the Cathedral for Benediction. The Church’s concept is expressed in the Preface of today’s Mass as follows:


Father, today we keep festival with your holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem.  Around your throne, the saints, our brothers and sisters, sing your praise forever”.

The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, the two groups include many of the same people – our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbours, the members of the GAA family who have gone before us.

Naturally, there are thousands upon thousands of GAA people in the “huge number too impossible to count standing before the throne of the Lamb” of which we heard in the first reading this morning from the Book of the Apocalypse. 

Another parallel, and a more interesting one today, is that both the Church and the GAA have two groups of people whose fame remains because of the holiness they displayed in the case of Church people, and in the case of GAA, the exceptional feats of skill at the games or in administration at county or national level and across the seas by its members, some deceased, some happily still with us. 

In the Church, there are the saints whose feast days are celebrated each year.  They are the canonised saints, Apostles and Martrys.  But there are millions of others who lived good Christian lives and were known only to their family, friends and neighbours.  These are the saints who are commemorated today – Féile na Naomh Uile – the Feast of all Saints.  In the same way, as the G.A.A. celebrates its foundation day we are commemorating especially the men and women whose dedication to and support of the Association was known only in their local clubs or parishes. 

These constitute a multitude which far outnumbers the “immortals” or the legends or the giants or the icons, whatever you wish to call them.  Like the Church, which holds up the great saints as models whose example can be followed and whose prayers should be sought , the GAA admires its greats and holds them up as role models for the people of today.

St. Paul always addressed all his faithful followers of Church by the name of “saints”.  We are all saints-in-the-making.  I recall a T-shirt I once saw a teenager wearing which announced, “Be patient, God is not finished with me yet”.  This reminds me of the cautionary verse:

To live above with the saints we love
Oh that were certain glory.
But to live below with the saints we know
Now that’s a different story.

People who strive to live good religious lives are people on their earthly pilgrimage, “eager to meet the great company of saints in Heaven which sing God’s praises around his heavenly throne.”

The Gospel just read is the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount – the eight Beatitudes – eight opening paradoxes which turn the standards of the world on their head. Pope Benedict XVI said recently that the Beatitudes are a veiled biography of Christ.  They are a portrait of his figure.  He had no place to lay his head.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  He was truly gentle, he was a peacemaker and so on.  The Holy Father continues “that the Beatitudes are a road map for us – for each one of us according to our individual calling in life”.  The holy people are those who have made the Beatitudes their standard, even when they fail to reach the highest standard they never give up because of their failures. They always start again.

Suppose we look for a moment at Michael Cusack.  Does he tick all the boxes as we say today?  “Blessed are the gentle” No. “Blessed are the peacemakers”.  Not really!  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice”. Michael Cusack scored strongly here. As he read from his circular of the previous week at the start of the meeting in Hayes Hotel 125 years ago today, he called for “the promotion of athletics by a body in which the nationalist community was fairly represented and the revival of the ancient national game of hurling and to serve the humbler and more neglected sections of society”.

Maurice Davin would certainly tick all the boxes.  A natural gentleman, calm, courteous, and a peacemaker.  His reply to Cusack’s letter inviting him to join the proposed  Association could be a motto for everyone in the Association today.  He wrote:



The movement such as you advise is….for the purpose of reviving Irish games and drafting rules…I will gladly lend a hand if I can be of any use”.  Davin was the ideal GAA volunteer.

Michael Cusack had a well worked out plan when he came to Commercial and Family Hotel and Posting Establishment here in Thurles, Lizzie J. Hayes being the Proprietor at 2pm on Saturday, November 1st 1884.  He had invited all who were interested in athletics all over Ireland but by 3 o’clock only five had turned up to join Maurice Davin and himself. A less determined man would have called it off or said it was just a preliminary meeting or a meeting about a meeting!   But the tiny as was the turnout, he went on with the meeting round the billiard table.  Maurice Davin took the Chair, having been elected President.  Cusack himself, John Wyse Power and John McKay were elected secretaries. 

It was agreed to invite Archbishop Thomas W. Croke, Charles Steward Parnell (and probably) Michael Davitt as Patrons.  The meeting adjourned to give the elected officers time to draft rules for the Gaelic Athletic Association.  When Michael Cusack took the train to Dublin that evening, he was planted an acorn which would grow into a giant oak tree whose roots would extend to every parish in the thirty two counties of Ireland and well beyond. He was fond of saying later that the Association had soon spread “like a prairie fire”.

In the first years, Athletics constituted the main events, with hurling and football as the sequels to the day out.  But, within a short number of years, hurling and football won pride of place.  In 1908, an article in the Athletic Annual described the excitement “the buzz” which the G.A.A. brought to what was previously a humdrum life for most people at the time:


The country was soon humming with interest and activity, the ambitions of the young men were aroused, every parish had its newly formed hurling or football team, prepared to do or die for the “Credit of the little village”.  Anon, the war of the Championships was on!  We followed armies of the Gaels many miles along the country roads to the field of combat, where as many as eight or ten teams, gaily clad in their coloured jerseys, struggled for supremacy before our dazzled and delighted eyes!  How we cheered our beloved heroes on to victory, and what pride we felt in looking on their stalwart and athletic forms!  To play on the “first team” was, indeed, the greatest honour a youth could hope for, and many of us looked forward to the day with swelling hearts” – Rev. James B. Dollard, quoted in The Gaelic Athletic Annual and County Directory, 1907-08, p. 19.

But, in line with the Church’s emphasis today on “the little saints”, as opposed to the Great Saints, I will come to the ordinary volunteers who served the GAA for the past 125 years.

After all, in regard to the “immortals” – do bheidís molta da mbeinise im’ thost.  Dr Croke has one of the finest stadia in the world named after him, I dislike the title “Croker” which is now all too common. There is also his memorial in Liberty Square which we will visit after this Mass.  Michael Cusack has a stand named after him in Croke Park, the Cusack Park in Ennis and the magnificent Centre in his home place in Carron, Co Clare. 

But now, to the host of volunteers who have given sterling service to the G.A.A. these past 125 years. They recall the words of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, “those who have no memorial and have perished as if they had not lived” – the men and women in the local clubs who worked quietly, humbly, far from view and unacclaimed, unknown to the media, for the love of the games, the boys, the men, the girls and women who played their part and never looked for a reward, not even a mention in the parish notes or local paper!

A recently published book entitled, “The GAA a People’s History” is an excellent publication.  It describes among other things how the Association brightened up the lives of local communities down the years.  Here is one inclusion on volunteers:


Volunteers cut grass, put out fertilizer, brush off water from the goal areas, clean up after players, put out flags, line fields, pick up rubbish after people, put out the wheel bin, fix netting and fencing, repair plumbing, put up lights, collect at gates, make lodgements, write cheques, run draws and lottos, raise funds, pay, organise games and trips away, communicate with players and public, absorb grief, attend meetings, attend meetings about meetings, take gear to the laundry, bring it back, apply for planning permission, plan and execute developments, put up bunting, take it down, train, coach, exhort, encourage, drive, hire, dig, backfill, build, drain, delegate, negotiate, volunteer” – Jerome O’Brien, GAA Oral History Project Archive 2008.

A study published by the Sports Centre of Ireland (2005) found that 15% of the Irish population do voluntary work for the different sports.  The GAA outstrips all the other sports organisations with 42% of all the volunteers – twice that of their nearest competitors!

Such loyal volunteers should spur us on in our voluntary commitments. Maurice Davin’s humble offer: “I will gladly lend a hand if I can be of any use”, could be our motto also on this historic anniversary.

Notes to editors

  • This homily was delivered on Sunday 1 November 2009

Further information:

Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 233 7797